Alumni Spotlight: Simeon Marsalis ’13

GRAD PLUMBS UVM EXPERIENCE, HISTORY IN DEBUT NOVEL
– By Tom Weaver, Vermont Quarterly, Spring 2018

Simeon Marsalis arrived on the UVM campus in 2009 focused on playing varsity basketball. Though he stepped away from the game after his sophomore season, Marsalis stayed at the university to earn his degree in religion in 2013 and had the rare opportunity to sit among his fellow graduates for a commencement address from his own father, famed musician Wynton Marsalis. Post-graduation, Marsalis has lived in cultural capitals New York City and New Orleans, but Burlington’s hooks remained set within the creative center of his mind. Last year, Catapult Books published Marsalis’s first novel, As Lie Is To Grin, which follows a protagonist named David on a nonlinear journey from his home in New York City to the University of Vermont, and back again.

Between the writing required in his courses and the journaling and fiction he tackled in his free time, Marsalis was well on his way as a writer by the time he graduated. “My work with the Religion Department was essential to my growth as a writer,” he says.

photo: Chris Buck

Post-graduation, Marsalis has lived in cultural capitals New York City and New Orleans, but Burlington’s hooks remained set within the creative center of his mind. This past October, Catapult Books published Marsalis’s first novel, As Lie Is To Grin, which follows a protagonist named David on a nonlinear journey from his home in New York City to the University of Vermont, and back again.

After leaving Burlington, Marsalis found himself frequently returning to study the architecture on campus. The book includes beautifully detailed descriptions of some of UVM’s most notable buildings. Marsalis also spent many hours combing the university archives to research the school’s blemished racial past, which plays a central role in protagonist David’s character development.

“It is about a freshman in college who questions the reasons why he has arrived at that particular university,” the author says, discussing the book’s plot. “He begins to research his own reasons for attending that university, and discovers an alumni ritual with a deeply personal resonance. The campus itself is its own character within the novel. I couldn’t have written this novel if I had not gone to UVM.”

Marsalis’s family roots, surrounded by musical artists, helped instill the confidence and work ethic to pursue a career in writing. “Watching my father and grandfather and uncles all those years allowed me to see the amount of work it takes to make it as an artist,” he says. “It helped me see art not as an abstract pursuit, but as an approachable entity. I had a very real connection to the amount of time it takes to hone an art. I didn’t see it as something that was foreign and unapproachable. I saw it as a distinct language that you had to learn, but once you learn that language, that’s where the freedom and play comes in.”

Spending weekends at his father’s house growing up, Marsalis also saw the amount of work required to make a living off of one’s art. “My father practices obsessively, it was all day,” says Marsalis. “There was always something to work on, whether it be the next piece, refining an old piece, or anything else. As an artist, it can be maddening because there is something you could be working on literally every second of the day. Seeing him and that work ethic, it originally really had an impact on the way I played basketball, because it made me see my goals in that sport as an attainable thing that had to do with work more so than something esoteric like talent or luck. More recently, I place my belief in work and work ethic as a way to develop my writing talent and to cultivate some of my own luck as an artist.”

Between the writing required in his courses and the journaling and fiction he tackled in his free time, Marsalis was well on his way as a writer by the time he graduated. “My work with the Religion Department was essential to my growth as a writer,” he says.

Since the book’s release, Marsalis has traveled widely—Seattle to Austin to Boston and many points between—to promote his novel at readings and festivals. The book has been well-received and got a cover-blurb boost from noted UVM poet/professor Major Jackson. “There are so many people at UVM who have been a big help to me,” says Marsalis. “Obviously Major Jackson, but also Sean Witters and so many people from the Religion Department, like Vicki Brennan and Kevin Trainor.”

Alumni Spotlight: Thomas Mackell ’18

Learning that is Deep and Collaborative*

“At UVM I was studying philosophy at first, which lacked a direct confrontation with a lot of social justice and political issues that religion classes offer, so I added religion as another major. I was exposed to works like Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions and Saba Mahmood’s Agency, Performativity, and the Feminist Subject, two of the best things I’ve read for any class . . .

“One of the most rewarding experiences at UVM was the work I did as part of professor Vicki Brennan’s classes, which resulted in a museum exhibit ‘Spirited Things‘ held in the fall of 2017. The exhibit included sacred objects from the Yoruba religion of West Africa, and other offshoots of Yoruba in the Americas developed by enslaved Africans who blended their spiritual practices with those of their captors. First, I took a religion seminar in the spring prior to the exhibit where we did a lot of research to prepare for the exhibit. In the fall I took another course concentrating on ethnography of museum visitors who were largely unfamiliar with these religions. The context of a Western museum typically implies that these objects must be very old and come from faraway places–therefore they are usually exhibited mainly for their value as natural history. However, in ‘Spirited Things’ many of the objects came from the contemporary Afro-Atlantic diaspora including cities like L.A. and New York. These objects were imbued with power and meaning for ritual purposes, and revered in their own right . . .

“A small statue of the Afro-Cuban goddess Yemayá, manufactured in China in 2014 and picked up by Matory in a Los Angeles botanica, served as the inspiration for independent research.For me it inspired an independent study centering around one of the objects in the exhibit, a statue of Yemaya. I ended up publishing a paper ‘Yemayá on Display: Post-Colonial Contact Zones in the Museum,’ and made a presentation at a spring symposium.”

–Thomas Mackell ’18

*In this series, we have pulled text from our newly relaunched website–we want to highlight our fantastic alumni in as many venues as possible!

Alumni Spotlight: Mairé Gebhard ’18

Making a Difference*

Mairé Gebhard ’18

“My father is a Presbyterian minister, my mother a self-proclaimed agnostic. I went to church every Sunday when I was growing up, however my parents were both constantly discussing and introducing other religions. I remember distinctly having a menorah, talking about Kwanza, my mom referencing different Hindu Gods, and my most fond memory of my mom reminding us every year on Christmas that the reason we celebrate the holiday when he we do actually because of ancient Indo-Iranian mythology and the God Mithras. I was constantly surrounded by discussions about religion . . .

When I was in high school and began going on college tours I told everyone I wanted to study political science. It wasn’t until my junior year, when I took a religion course combined with a class called Human Geography, that my thoughts began to change. I distinctly remember the day I was touring colleges the summer before senior year and changed my answer to what I wanted to study. I said ‘religion.’ I came in declared and haven’t regretted it a single day . . .

I am currently working for AmeriCorps in Florida with the Palm Beach Literacy Coalition where I am working with Haitian immigrants, teaching English to both children and adults. I have an eleven-month commitment with AmeriCorps and my plan is to apply for the PeaceCorps after my service here. People always ask ‘what you can do with a degree in religion’ and I think the great thing is that you’re not limited! My studies broadened my world view, taught me about race, gender, politics, and so much more than just religion.”

–Mairé Gebhard ’18

*In this series, we have pulled text from our newly relaunched website–we want to highlight our fantastic alumni in as many venues as possible!

Alumni Spotlight: Marissa McFadden ’17

Making a difference in the here and now*

Marissa (left) during a study abroad program in India.

As a high school student in Groton, Conn., Marissa McFadden ’17

was looking for a college that offered a lively religion program and a strong reputation in the sciences—at the time she had her sights set on medical school.

“I had never been to Vermont as a kid, but I enjoy hiking and the outdoors, so the fact that UVM had a good medical school right on campus and a great rural atmosphere were really strong selling points for me.”

McFadden double-majored in biochemistry and religion, but felt a stronger tug to the latter discipline.

“I genuinely had a passion for thinking about world systems, languages, cultures, interactions and intersectionalities. But also, I thought that it would be a unique characteristic that I could present to medical school admissions. I don’t think I consciously knew it then, but my decision to major in religion was the beginning of my move away from the sciences, and more towards thinking about the world as an activist.”

In her second year at UVM she concentrated fully on religious studies. She still sees herself working in a clinical setting as a social worker–she’s now pursuing an MSW through UVM’s College of Education and Social Services.

“Studying religion helps you empathize with people and what they are going through. It takes into account not just their belief systems but their cultural history, their stories, their circumstances. It provides me a way to bring the whole person into focus.”

*In this series, we have pulled text from our newly relaunched website–we want to highlight our fantastic alumni in as many venues as possible!